China in the Pacific

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Afamasaga M. F. Toleafoa

The Pacific’s traditional development partners Australia and New Zealand have been generous enough in helping their Pacific island neighbours with their development ambitions. But with all the goodwill and best intensions in the world, the Pacific Islands have development needs that require a lot more support than what Australia and New Zealand can provide on their own, a fact not lost on them.

 

The brief news item with the heading “US claims better finance terms than China” in last week’s Sunday Samoan caught my eye for two reasons. 

First, I had never heard of the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (O.P.I.C.) before. And secondly, it had the usual negative China pivot that one has come to associate with Trump and his “America First” and “Make America great again” surrogates. 

As its title suggests, the item made claims about O.P.I.C. finance being superior to the substantial development aid China has been putting in to Pacific island economies. So I asked Google and it came up with the following about this seemingly little known U.S. charitable finance agency, if O.P.I.C. Vice-President, David Bohigian is to be believed.  

And this is O.P.I.C’s own spiel about O.P.I.C.. “The Overseas Private Investment Corporation is a self-sustaining US Government agency that helps American businesses invest in emerging markets. Established in 1971, OPIC provides businesses (US) with the tools to manage the risks associated with foreign direct investment, fosters development in emerging market countries, and advances US foreign policy and national security priorities. OPIC helps American businesses gain a foothold in new markets, catalysis new revenues and contributes to jobs and growth opportunities both at home and abroad. 

Now we know who O.P.I.C. is and what it does, but where is the better finance terms to Pacific island countries as claimed? O.P.I.C. is nothing but the U.S. government helping U.S. companies compete in Pacific investment markets. 

There is no comparison whatsoever with Chinese aid where millions of dollars are either given as grant or as loans at very favourable terms for Pacific island governments themselves to implement their development plans and national priorities. 

But why the lies and misrepresentation, and why the China bashing along with it?  Is there really that much fear of China? We know from history that nations rise and fall, usually as a result of moral decay from within and because they forget the values that made them rise to greatness in the first place. 

But hardly a day passes now without some commentary in the western media about the dangers of Chinese aid in the Pacific. The Chinese want access to land and natural resources. They force unreasonable terms on vulnerable Pacific states. The recipients will fall into the debt trap and China will then dictate terms. These are only a few of the accusations made. Yet if the truth be told, in the very short period of time that Chinese aid has started, a great deal of difference has already taken place to development in struggling Pacific economies. Pacific island leaders, out of the usual politeness and reticence may have refrained from saying so openly, but China has been a very welcome entry into the Pacific aid scene notwithstanding the views of its mostly outside critics.

The Pacific’s traditional development partners Australia and New Zealand have been generous enough in helping their Pacific island neighbours with their development ambitions. But with all the goodwill and best intensions in the world, the Pacific Islands have development needs that require a lot more support than what Australia and New Zealand can provide on their own, a fact not lost on them. 

The prospects for development in most PICs are that much brighter today because China, the second largest economy in the world and still growing, in spite of a spiteful Trump, is willing to help out. 

The misgivings expressed by Australia and New Zealand about a growing Chinese presence in the region are understandable, not that the Pacific peoples can’t manage their own relations with China as some have suggested. But there is bound to be more intense competition for influence in what has up till recently been a safe backward corner of the world left largely to the safe keeping of Australia and New Zealand. But deep pockets are not everything. The two countries have established strong ties of shared history, of trade and commerce and perhaps more importantly of people and culture with the Pacific islands. These will no doubt endure and strengthen with further economic integration and contact.  

 Japan and the EU are the other regular aid donors and development partners in the region. They seem more sanguine about the evolving aid situation although Japanese aid appears to have gone up a notch lately. Australia’s and New Zealand’s have also both announced a reset towards the South Pacific in their respective foreign and aid policies and priorities. The US has its own responsibilities to its remaining territories and former territories to take care of. Otherwise, it has no aid profile to speak of, a reason perhaps for US officials when they do visit resorting to fake news and China bashing to attract attention. 

 Development in the Pacific Islands has been, and will always be severely handicapped by the tyranny of remoteness, of miniscule size except for PNG and one or two others, and by their wide geographical spread. 

Even so, the region is often unfairly criticized for lagging behind others in development in spite of supposedly high per capita aid statistics. The criticism has not been heard much lately however; given the bad rap globalization has been receiving and the inability of market economics to solve every problem. 

And as things stand today for the Pacific, development is made all the more difficult by worsening climate change impacts, fueled by the destructive policies of climate change rogue states like the US under Trump. 

It should come as no surprise in the circumstances that the Pacific would not see China’s presence in the region in not quite the same light as others that for their own reasons, have always viewed China as a threat.   

As for the O.P.I.C. aid money that Mr. O.P.I.C. Vice President falsely compared to Chinese aid, it turns out that it was all a lie. This was the U.S. government helping U.S. businesses to compete in the Pacific investment markets for their own gain, while at the same time advancing US foreign policy and national security priorities. 

It shouldn’t surprise anymore for we know that lies, fake news and bashing China are the new normal in American politics under Trump and “America First’” We had experience of it ourselves last year when U.S. Ambassador to Samoa, Mr. Scott Brown, the former Fox News operative, dished out fake dirt about China when he visited. 

He was soon told that falsely trashing China, a trusted friend and development partner won’t win him many friends here. 

The same advice might come in handy for Mr. David Bohigian of the U.S. Overseas Private Investment Corporation the next time he feels the urge to lie in state, and to sell made in America alternative facts in our not so distant and forgotten corner of the Pacific.

© Samoa Observer 2016

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